When you visit your physician, they check your blood pressure, body weight, and, possibly, check blood tests, like lipids and blood sugar. These tests provide a general idea of how healthy you are and your likelihood of dying over the next decade or two. But, research reveals that two other parameters may be markers of mortality as well as indicators of overall fitness. Unfortunately, health care professionals don’t routinely test them – but they should! That’s because these tests are a good indicator of how fit and functional a person. These two tests, in particular, say something about a person’s risk of dying prematurely.
Self-Reported Walking Speed as a Marker of Fitness
How fast do you walk when you’re out and about? According to an observational study of more than 420,000 healthy women and men, self-reported walking speed is a good indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness. In the study, researchers compared aerobic capacity, as measured by a 6-minute graded fitness test, to an individual’s self-reported walking speed. They found a strong correlation between the two. In other words, how fast the participants said they walked was directly correlated with their measured aerobic capacity. So, aerobically fitter people tend to walk faster naturally.
Why is this important? As you know, aerobic capacity is an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness. In turn, research shows a link between cardiorespiratory fitness and all-cause mortality. People with good cardiorespiratory fitness are less likely to die prematurely. In the study, both males and females who walked at a slow pace had a 67% higher risk of dying from all causes relative to those who walked at a brisk pace.
Other research also shows a correlation between how briskly a person walks and mortality. In fact, walking speed is a good screen for an individual’s overall health. One study found how quickly someone walks is associated with physical function and the odds of taking medications. It makes sense, doesn’t it? People who are healthy and feel good usually move at a brisker pace than those who have chronic health problems and are in poor physical shape. As people get into better physical shape, you would expect their walking speed to increase too.
Yet another study found that men and women who walked slowly had double the odds of dying from cardiovascular disease relative to those who cruised along at a brisk pace. The association held even when researchers controlled for other factors that impact cardiovascular risk, including diet, how hard and often they exercise, and whether they smoked.
What a simple test! Even if it’s not practical to check walking speed in the office, the medical staff can ask an individual how quickly they think they walk. Yet, few doctors even ask about exercise, much less how quickly people walk. Questions about walking speed should be part of the medical history, even if physicians don’t have time to measure it. If a person says they can’t walk briskly, it raises red flags!
Hand Grip Strength
How’s your handshake? Hopefully, it’s not limp like a wet noodle! Studies, including meta-analyses of multiple studies, correlate isometric handgrip strength with mortality risk. Those with a weaker hand grip have a higher risk of dying than those who exhibited a strong grip. Initially, researchers found this link in elderly individuals but subsequent research shows it also applies to middle-aged adults.
How do you measure hand-grip strength? Physical therapists use an instrument called a hand-held dynamometer. To measure hand strength in this manner, you squeeze the instrument as tightly as can three times in a row. Then, the technician takes the average of each reading to determine your grip strength in that hand. Then, they measure strength in the other hand. This is another simple way to assess health and well-being, yet few physicians have a dynamometer or evaluate a patient’s grip strength.
Grip strength is partially determined by age, as strength declines with age. That’s not surprising since we lose muscle mass and our muscles weaken as the years pass, especially if we don’t strength train. Also, a study published in Lancet found that drops in grip strength are correlated with a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke. The question is whether improving grip strength also lowers the risk of premature death. Hopefully, future studies will clarify this issue.
Strength and Aerobic Fitness Matter!
Staying physically fit matters! Lack of exercise is one of the top eight causes of excess mortality. Research clearly shows that staying physically active lowers the risk of premature death and reduces the risk of some of the most common health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Exercise is the best medicine that doesn’t require a prescription and has only positive side effects.
Staying physically active also improves health span, the number of years we live fully and do the things we enjoy. Too often, people enter their retirement years weighed down with medications, disabilities, and health problems. Regular exercise, both cardiovascular and strength training, helps slow aging and age-related muscle loss. It also improves mental health. One of the smartest things we can do is make a lifelong commitment to move our bodies more.
The Bottom Line
How fast you walk and how tightly you can grip says something about your overall health and your risk of dying early. It suggests that even as we age we need to keep moving and working our bodies against resistance. It’s the best medicine we have to stay fit and healthy at any age!
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· Live Science. “How Fast Do You Walk? Your Answer Could Predict Your Risk of Heart Disease Death”
· The Lancet. Volume 386, Issue 9990, P266-273, July 18, 2015.
· VeryWell Health. “8 Top Causes of Excess Mortality in the US”